On the edge, but on the edge of what, asked Paul Berman on opening night of PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. The answer is that we’re at the precipice of several edges, the most pressing of which depends on who you ask. The program invited participating writers, among them Salman Rushdie (edge: censorship), Adonis (spirituality), Sofi Oksanen (Russian encroachment), and Noam Chomsky (climate change), to “bring their rage to the stage for a 7-minute oration … of unrestrained intellectual fury.” Nobody banged the podium or harangued the audience, but plenty of biting commentary and passion was on full display.
On the way to the event I read—at the urging of Chomsky in our interview—George Orwell’s proposed introduction to Animal Farm, which wasn’t published until many years after the book was released. In that essay, Orwell delivered a scathing critique of the intellectual elites in England who succumbed not to state censorship, but to an internalized self-censorship. The commentary was especially bitter, since publishers were hesitant to publish Orwell’s book because they deemed the satire to be too precisely directed against Russia’s ruling regime. The blank endpapers in Orwell’s review copy of Animal Farm stand as ghostly reminders of self-censorship in action. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England,” he wrote, “is that it is largely voluntary.”
Parallel examples of Orwell’s experience are, sadly, abundant today.
To the destructive practices of state-sponsored censorship and self-censorship I add a third pernicious category: market censorship. Distinctions are in order. State-sponsored censorship is the easiest to ferret out, as it can be seen in any number of publicly known cases in countries where those who write about policies and practices that resist authoritarian rule are silenced in jail, or worse. Examples abound in China or Ethiopia or Iran, to name only three.
Market censorship occurs when corporate leaders cede to radical demands to abolish the dissemination of an idea because to proceed otherwise would impinge upon profit margins. This type of censorship appears to be taking place today in India and it was what Salman Rushdie addressed in his remarks, though he did not give it the same name. The author of the once-banned The Satanic Verses called on defenders of free expression, such as publishing houses, to not shirk from their responsibility in the face of threats from conservative fanatics, even if those threats would—gasp!—threaten market share. He wasn’t afraid to name names, calling out the likes of Dina Nath Batra, who successfully persuaded an international publisher to agree to destroy copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. The backlash from Hindu fundamentalists was too great for the publisher to bear.
That publisher, by the way, is Penguin. Doniger’s book so willfully destroyed by its corporate benefactor have dismayed authors in India and around the world, who rightfully accuse the house of caving to the demands of an oppressive political-religious party (namely the BJP). In protest, some writers have asked Penguin to pulp their books, too.
“The argument,” says Doniger, “has nothing to do with religious civility; it is about the clash between pious and academic ways of talking about religion and about who get to speak for or interpret religious traditions.”
Doniger is half-right. The battle over what’s in her book is a battle of ideas. Batra and his fanatical ilk struggle to maintain control of the Hindu narrative, fighting against any dissent or inconvenient facts that deviate from their preferred histrionic ideology. The other half of the battle is, of course, market-oriented. Penguin has gone to bat before to defend free expression, namely for D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but that was in 1960. Since then Penguin has merged, morphed, and ballooned into Penguin Random House, the world’s largest consumer publishing company, which is 53% owned by Bertelsmann, a German-based multibillion dollar multimedia conglomerate with significant business interests in India.1
Orwell said of the British press that the media was mostly “owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics.” That dishonesty applies today and is as often underpinned by politics as it is by economics. Two years ago India overtook Japan as the third-largest economy in purchasing power parity (PPP). Why rock the boat of such a vast and growing consumer base? (The second largest country in PPP is China; imagine to what lengths Penguin might stretch to keep that government happy.)
[Read part two of this dispatch.]
1. Bertelsmann SE & Co KGaA is privately owned, so there is little available data on their sales in India or elsewhere. Revenue in 2013 appears to be just shy of $22 billion globally. As of 2011, about 6% of their revenue (of $21.4 billion), or $130 million, was from countries outside the U.S. and Europe.
India, PEN 2014, Salman Rushdie, Public Intellectual